The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Modern Languages.

by G. L. F.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 433-435

The Easter meeting of the Modern Languages Association in Paris was an event memorable to all interested in the reform of modern language teaching; it was memorable for many obvious reasons. A full account of the meeting appeared in the May number of The Journal of Education to which we must refer our readers for details. At present we wish to draw attention to one point, which seemed to be of practical importance and worth noting.

The progress made in teaching modern languages has undoubtedly been very great; and yet there have been many suggestions that the new method has not fulfilled its promise, that it has overstepped itself and that, by concentrating its attention too exclusively on one branch of the study of language, it has necessarily neglected other important branches.

Mr. Storr drew attention to a statement which he says was made by a learned professor, examiner to seven Universities and countless other bodies, in a public report: "Conversation is the most important aim, the crown of modern language teaching." Mr. Storr suggests that the learned professor said more than he meant. That may be so. But the sentiment is one which might be endorsed by many ultra-modern teachers. And yet so long as this is the case, the modern language teacher can hardly hope to compete successfully with the classical teacher, and "compete" is not too strong a word. Sir Hubert Jerningham said: "C'est tout une petite guerre que nous livrons aux langues mortes pour donner plus de vitalité aux langues vivantes." But it is not unjust to say that no secondary school teacher of modern languages (with the exceptions of a limited number of the more favored schools) could possibly claim to offer the education and culture which are acquired by a study of the classics. Until the study of modern languages is taught by a method which can be said to be truly philosophical, based on psychology and on a study of the intricate processes by which languages are mastered, the classical men may continue to assert that "no Greek and Latin" means a gap in the culture. It should be the aim of all teachers to educate, not to endeavour to bring pupils to speak or read or write unless by so doing their minds are being cultured. When a parent writes to complain that his boy knows nothing of French literature except a few modern stories, whereas he himself had studied half a dozen at least of the masterpieces of Greek literature before leaving school, is it enough to call attention to the boy's excellent accent, and his fluent use of everyday language? If when the parent says, "The boy knows nothing about French history except so far as it regards English history; whereas I knew Greek and Roman history as well as he knows his English history," is it enough to answer to this that the boy has a fair knowledge of contemporary France, its present institutions, its characteristics, its failings and its accomplishments, its system of government and administration of justice, and a few of its prominent men? In a word, can one justify the neglect of French classical literature and of the history of France before the Revolution?

It is evidently impossible for a boy at a secondary school to acquire a good pronunciation, a fluent use of the everyday language, accuracy in composition and a knowledge of the masterpieces of prose and poetry. Something must be partially or wholly neglected.

There was a passage in Dr. Heath's address which touched this point: "Humanism should be begun in the mother tongue. To attempt any study of style or culture in the foreign tongue before the age of eighteen or nineteen is to stunt the imagination and to encourage loose language and vague thinking. The realities, the 'things useful to be known' in the earlier stage of teaching a foreign language, must be concrete things, the national life and ways. For the most part, school life will cease at the point where the literature of the foreign tongue lies open to the youth as a guide and help to a wide citizenship and higher ideals when he faces the rough-and-tumble of the world; but, if he is ready to appreciate the foreign style or to make a more careful study of the style and the philosophy of the neighboring people in his last two years at a public school or when he enters the University, this stage must be inaugurated by a study of logic. And so far as his language study is concerned, this logical training is afforded him by means of careful translation. . . . Nothing but translation can reveal the gaps in our powers of expression." This, it seems, is an answer that might well be given, provided that the first essential condition to be fulfilled, namely, "Humanism should be begun in the mother tongue." Hitherto, to a large extent, this part of culture has been the part of the classics. Whenever the classics are not studied, this duty must fall on some other language. And of modern languages, which one is to supply the humanism?

This question bears on the assertion of the Modern Language Association that English is one of the modern languages, and, so far as Englishman are concerned, the most important one. To hold up the example of continental ways of studying the mother tongue is quite useless. It has been done over and over again, and still the majority of English schools send out scholars quite unable to write as well as Frenchmen and generally unable to express themselves easily enough to make a short speech. Schoolboys who happen to come across a mention of what French boys study -- among other things being French -- always ask, "Why do they need to study French?" and the average Englishman is equally at a loss to know the reason. There, undoubtedly, lies the fault at present. Belles lettres, history and other kindred subjects must rest on English foundations during secondary education. A foreign language master cannot aspire to bring his pupils to the stage of sympathy with the thought or form of foreign prose or poem. Cannot aspire, because he must not attempt it. There will always be a certain small number of pupils who can appreciate the philosophy or the beauty of a foreign work. But the aim with regard to the average pupil, as Dr. Heath asserts, should really be to prepare the mind carefully so that when the time comes for leaving school, it goes of its own accord to study what the foreign nation itself values as its best inheritance. And this voluntary study can only be expected when a real interest has been kindled; and this interest can probably be cultivated most surely by attaining ease in the use of the ordinary language of intercourse, and gaining an intelligent knowledge of the great people as it now lives and acts.

Who can fail to be interested in the history of France when he has seen the country? And what young mind with a fair knowledge of contemporary France and of all that it is proud of would consider the study of its evolution of no interest, when once school days are over and problems of actual life require solving? It would be better for a young undergraduate to be able to join intelligently in the conversation of French society than to be able to discuss the subtleties of grammar. And to say that a foreign language teacher aims at giving a pupil this power to take an intelligent part in French conversation, is by no means to narrow his sphere more; but if the majority in a secondary school could claim to be able to converse intelligently on ordinary topics in French society, the result would be one to satisfy the most aspiring master.

G. L. F.

Typed by Mariel, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023